Heather Rose has won the 2017 Stella Prize for her novel The Museum of Modern Love, a fictional exploration of the power of art to transform individual lives, written in exquisite prose, with rare and subtle insight.
Brenda Walker, Chair of the judging panel, said:
It is rare to encounter a novel with such powerful characterisation, such a deep understanding of the consequences of personal and national history, such affection for a city and the people who are drawn to it, and such dazzling and subtle explorations of the importance of art in everyday life.
Rose’s novel centres on Serbian artist Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present, a 75-day performance piece that took place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Throughout the work, Ambramović sat perfectly still at a table in the museum’s atrium, with bright lights shining down and around her, while spectators took turns to sit opposite. As each visitor sat, Abramović lifted her face and maintained eye contact.
Within days, people began crowding the atrium to watch, the lines frequently spilling out onto the street. Some gathered overnight or in the early hours before the museum opened. Occasionally the sitters cried.
Rose’s novel subtly explores the individual lives of fictional characters in the audience, all of whom are transformed by the strange intimacy of the work. At its centre is Arky Levin, a music composer who is emotionally cut off from life.
He wasn’t sure why he needed to keep returning to the sidelines of this strange performance, but he kept finding himself taking the train, walking in the door, climbing the stairs, taking his place by the white line. The atrium was a magnet, or maybe it was Abramović. Something about this was important, but he couldn’t say why.
In Rose’s novel, chance conversations with strangers offer rare and disarming insights not only into the emotional lives of the characters, and their often tragic situations, but also into our own yearning for “some new idea of life” – a more authentic kind of intimacy or connection in our disconnected, media-saturated world.
In a list that included significant and moving books by two writers, Georgia Blain and Cory Taylor, who have both died since the publication of their works, the choice to award Rose’s novel could not have come easily to the judging panel.
Taylor’s book, Dying a memoir, genuinely broke new ground in writing powerfully and with astonishing clarity about a subject that is rarely treated with such effect. Blain’s novel, Between a Wolf and a Dog, is the final achievement of a mature writer whose work spoke clearly and in a quietly profound way to a whole generation – my generation – of women.
But Blain and Taylor would have been the emotional choice. And objectivity is – perhaps – not possible in the face of such calamity. I am uncertain. But I do think there should be a special place in literature for books that do some real work in the world.
The Museum of Modern Love is Heather Rose’s seventh book. Her previous novels include White Heart (1999), The Butterfly Man (2005) and The River Wife (2009). She is co-author (with Danielle Wood) of the Tuesday McGillycuddy series for children, published under the pen name Angelica Banks. She won the Davitt Award in 2006, and her novels have been shortlisted for the Nita B. Kibble Award and the Aurealis Awards, and longlisted for the IMPAC Award.
Rose joins previous Stella winners including Carrie Tiffany, Clare Wright, Emily Bitto and Charlotte Wood.